When Y Is A Vowel: Multisensory Spelling Strategies


Y as a vowel

When Y is a Vowel

As part of the spelling generalization blog series, this next post is going to give you the low down on Y as a vowel. Most of us remember learning the vowels as children: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y. For a long time before I became trained in OG, the when and where of the vowel Y was a mystery. I wasn’t particularly sure how to explain it to students and was reluctant to emphasize it when the consonant sound for Y was already so challenging for many kids. And then when I dug deep in my training, it began to become clearer.

Did you know?

Not only could I say quite reliably that Y only made its consonant sound at the beginning of a syllable, but that Y borrowed sounds when it occurred in other places. In fact, y occurs more commonly as a vowel than as a consonant. The two most common sounds that the vowel y borrows are the long I sound and the long e sound. Luckily, these are quite predictable. In general, y makes the long I sound at the end of a 1 syllable word, or very occasionally at the end of an initial open syllable. Y typically makes the long e sounds at the end of a 2 syllable word.

Some words that follow this generalization include:

Dry                  by                    my                   cry                   spy

Happy              empty              silly                  Andy                candy

It is helpful to specify syllable rather than word because although Y typically acts as a consonant at the beginning of a word, there are a few occasions where it is the first letter of the syllable such as the words: canyon, beyond, and lawyer

There are occasions where y will make the long I sound at the end of a 2-syllable word, but this is not typical.

Some examples of words that fit this pattern are:

Ally                  apply               July                  reply

There are also a handful of exceptions where the long I at the end of a one syllable word is spelling with an I, such as pi and hi. This may become somewhat confusing as students learn the vowel team ie down the road, but by then, y as long I is fairly well integrated and the words spelled with y quite familiar. Similarly, there are occasions where long e is spelled differently than y at the end such as ey or ie, but those phonograms come later on.

Although y occasionally says I at the end of a 2-syllable word, the reverse is not also the case. Y will not say e at the end of a 1 syllable word. That is typically spelled e or ee.

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Teaching Tips

In order to teach the concept of y as a vowel, it is helpful for students to know the open syllable type, be familiar with determining the number of syllables, and be able to segment 4 or 5 sounds. I find this comes most easily in reading first. Typically, spelling the long e sound with y is a bit more challenging for students than the long I sound.  It is important to avoid using instances where y is actually a suffix at first. As students learn more vowel teams such as ey, it is important to remind students how frequently the long e sound is spelled with an open syllable y. Prompting with key words is helpful to act as a reminder while students are becoming more proficient and automatic with the use of y as a vowel.

Your students can use some guiding questions to help them make a decision when writing a new word:

  • What is the base word?
  • How many syllables do I hear?
  • Do I hear the long I sound or the long E sound?
  • Where do I hear the vowel sound?

Some teaching ideas include:

  • Sorting – You can sort words by sound, number of syllables or sort pictures by vowel location to build phonemic awareness skills.
  • Start from the known – Many students have a collection of sight words such as my that they are already familiar with. Similarly, they may have a nickname or pet’s name that uses the final y as e.
  • Review activities – It is helpful to practice both the e and I sound during the blending drill by asking students, what if this was part of a 2-syllable word?
  • Dictation — Make sure to avoid using y as a suffix words in dictation until you have taught it as a suffix. Avoid mixing words like hi with words like cry. Use a key word to help students recall y as a vowel.
  • Games – Incorporate words with y as a vowel frequently in review lists and games.
  • Spiral and Review – I recommend keeping the y vowel card as part of the card drill, blending drill and incorporating it into dictation often. Be aware that although students may be automatic with writing words such as my, they may not be able to automatically use this phonogram when spelling less familiar words such as sly or dry.
  • Verbalize – It is valuable to have students verbalize how they know that the y is going to make a vowel sound because of its placement in a word.

While using y as a vowel isn’t a particularly complicated concept, it moves students significantly closer to spelling things in a more standard way. It is valuable for students to learn that an e at the end of a word is much more likely to be silent and doing a job than to be making the e sound.

If you are seeking more advanced practice, you’ll want to check out this Spelling Generalizations bundle.

spelling rules resource

Be sure to catch the other spelling generalization blog posts HERE for LOTS more tips. I’ve got you covered. 😉


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